Why It Had to Be Mexico

Coco is a film that can only be set in Mexico. The movie is set in one day on the Day of the Dead, the long-standing Mexican tradition that goes as far back as the indigenous, pre-colonial days of the country — with some historians tracing the holiday’s roots back to an ancient Aztec festival. Rather than a somber day of reflection like the day implies, it is in actuality a joyous celebration of the memories of ancestors, with altars decorated with photographs and food, a tradition of sweeping and holding vigil at the cemetery, and a bright and costumed parade with the recognizable skull face paint.

The idea for the film came about around 2011, when Unkrich returned from a family trip to the Epcot theme park at Walt Disney World, and had been captivated by the paper mache figures on display in the Mexico pavilion — figures that had been purchased from real local artists. “That planted the seed,” Unkrich said, who then developed the idea with story supervisor Jason Katz to bring to Pixar chief creative officer John Lasseter. Lasseter OK’d the idea, and the crew immediately got on a plane for Mexico to observe Día de los Muertos firsthand.

It was the first of several trips that the Coco crew took to Mexico, to research the holiday as well as several cities and towns that could serve as inspiration for Miguel’s hometown of Santa Cecilia as well as the fantastical Land of the Dead. Individual members of the crew also traveled back and forth to coordinate the music collaborations with Mexican musicians.

Kelly highlighted the pivotal role these research trips had in the setting the film when and where it was:

It’s so important for us to put the time into this research phase because we knew that we didn’t want Coco to be a story that just took place on Dia de Los Muertos, we wanted it to be a story that could only take place on Dia de los Muertos. And we wanted these traditions to be embedded in Miguel’s journey.

Another way that the crew went out of the way to pay respect to the Mexican cultures and tradition — which they had initially run afoul of in the early stages of the film’s development when Disney had attempted to license the name “Day of the Dead” for Pixar’s use in the film — was to bring in as many cultural consultants on as possible. While Pixar is not unfamiliar with cultural advisers, Unkrich described how it was an unusual practice to bring them on so early:

We did something that we’ve never done on any of our films, we brought on the core group of cultural advisers early on. We started inviting them to our [regular internal screenings]. Normally at Pixar we play our cards really close and it’s not until later that we start to do public preview screenings, but in this case we started showing the screenings not just to them, but we had a series of screenings where we brought on cultural advisers from Los Angeles, different places around the country, some pretty important figures in the Latino community, and let them “into the tent” as it were.

Some of them were vary wary about what we were doing and were not sure what our intentions were and how seriously we were taking it, but I think we put them at ease pretty quickly but also made them comfortable giving us sometimes big notes. We made some big changes to the story based on the input from the advisers. It was always in an effort to make the characters relatable and the story feel great, we didn’t want this to be a lesson.

But despite Unkrich and his team’s determination to paint as authentic a picture of the holiday as possible with the help of research and cultural advisers, Unkrich still expressed trepidation at the prospect of helming a story that he had little familiarity with:

I knew from day 1 as soon as John said, “Yes this is the idea I want to pursue,” I thought, “Oh my gosh what did I get myself into?” because I knew I wanted to get it right. The last thing I wanted to do as make a film that felt like it was made by an outsider. I’m not Latino and will never be Latino, I just can’t change that. But I comforted myself in knowing that there are a lot of great films by filmmakers that were not of the cultures that they were making films about, so I took the responsibility very seriously. And it’s been great having Adrian by my side and all of the cultural consultants that we gathered and the many Latino members of our crew that have been with us for a long time. And I hope we got it right. If we have any missteps, it’s not for lack of trying.

Molina added, “When I heard that Coco got greenlit, I was like “Put me on that movie.”

Molina began as the screenwriter for Coco, but was soon promoted to co-director alongside Unkrich. The story held personal resonance for Molina, who — though Spanish is his second language — was adamant that the film made clear to the audience that it was set in Mexico. This meant that untranslated Spanish phrases would be scattered throughout the dialogue of the film, or that all the non-plot-relevant signage is in Spanish:

We definitely wanted to include [Spanish phrases] because so much of the feeling of being in Mexico comes from the language. But then we also knew that this was going to be the domestic version of the film and most of the audience is going to come from a background where they don’t know Spanish and they may only relate to an English-language part. So we created a framework for when to use Spanish and when not to use it. If there’s something that works in context, the way the character’s acting tells you what the word means even if you don’t know what it means — like when Abuelita goes up to her grandson and strokes his face saying “Ay mijo,” we know it’s a gesture of affection so we don’t need to translate it to “my child.”

We tried to make sure our storytelling is clear while still preserving the language.

Molina praised the all-Latino cast of Coco for adding that extra layer of authenticity to the dialogue, saying that the Spanish-speaking skills of the cast allowed them to use “our actors as a resource.” Molina pointed out to Garcia Bernal in particular, saying with a laugh that he “really went creative and he started keying into things like, ‘Oh I want to call him chamaco, because that feels like an old-timey way I relate to this kid.'”

It’s an all-Latino cast…except for perhaps one line by Pixar stalwart Jon Ratzenberger, Unkrich added dryly. Ratzenberger has made a cameo in every Pixar film since the studio broke into feature films, and Unkrich said he doesn’t “want to break the tradition since Toy Story, so we’re going to have an all-Latino cast plus Jon Ratzenberger.”

Continue Reading Coco Set Visit: Pixar’s Newest Film Tears Down Cultural Walls To Tell a Universal Story

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